How Tweet It Is: Bird Songs in Classical Music
AbstractDo you enjoy singing contests like American Idol? Well, male songbirds have their own version of a singing competition that has been going on for thousands of years, and classical musical composers have been taking notes! In this music science fair project, you'll investigate the different instruments composers have used to imitate or create impressions of bird songs and bird calls.
Kristin Strong, Science Buddies
To determine which instruments are used to recreate bird songs and bird calls in classical music, and to investigate whether imitations or impressions are given.
The glorious melodies of songbirds have long been a source of inspiration for composers of music. Some composers imitate bird songs to reflect the seasons or nature, or to create a sense of comfort or lightness in their music, while others use them to give the impression of conversation. Birds are very chatty, social creatures, after all! Still others use a fragment of bird song as a theme for an entire piece of music, just for its beauty alone.
Composers have also used bird calls, rather than bird songs, in their music. Bird calls are different from bird songs—they are simpler, more repetitive, and have less variation. Calls are used to signal danger, hunger, a food discovery, aggressiveness, to call groups together (called flocking), or to harass a predator. While both male and female birds engage in bird calls, bird songs—with more pitch and rhythm changes—are primarily done by the males who sing to attract female mates, and to defend territory.
Humans and some male birds share an impressive ability to make songs out of sounds they hear around them in the natural world. Birds that have this ability to imitate are some of the most accomplished mimics on Earth. Some forest-dwelling birds, for example, like the lyre birds of South Australia, can imitate 20 different species of birds, as well as other sounds they hear around them in the forest, like camera shutters from hikers and chain saws from loggers! Urban birds, on the other hand, like starlings, have been observed giving perfect renditions of cell phones and car alarms. Imitation is very important to some male birds because it can increase the complexity and variation in their songs, and females seem to prefer this, as it may indicate greater intelligence, which can help offspring survive. Singing also expends energy, so only the strongest male birds, with extra energy to spare, can afford to spend time singing loud and long. Each dawn, male birds practice their songs, each one trying to make a variation more beautiful and more complicated than the others. It's like a bird's version of American Idol!
In this music science fair project, you will investigate human imitation of bird songs and bird calls—the instruments that are used, as well as the fidelity with which the songs are imitated. Do composers try to imitate exactly the sounds of birds, or do they try to create an impression, a sense or idea of what the birds sound like? Do you think that flutes, with their ability to make high-pitched sounds and trills, are the only choice to recreate bird sounds in classical music? Try this science fair project and find out!
Terms and Concepts
- Bird song
- Bird call
- Why do composers include bird sounds in their classical music?
- What are the differences between bird songs and bird calls?
- Why is the ability to imitate important to some birds?
- Lewin, N. (2008, February 27). Classical Music for the Birds. Retrieved October 16, 2008.
This source gives an overview of how and why birds vocalize, and how their vocalizations have been incorporated into music:
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2008, October 21). Bird vocalization. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 17, 2008.
This link provides free, open-source software with the capability for sound editing and frequency-spectrum analysis:
- Audacity Developer Team. (2000, May). The Free, Cross-Platform Sound Editor. Retrieved October 16, 2008.
These sources allow you to listen to calls of many varieties of birds:
- All-birds.com. (2003). Favorite Backyard Birds. Retrieved October 23, 2008.
- Elliott, L. (2006). Welcome to Learn Bird Songs!. Retrieved October 23, 2008.
- Davies, G.H. (n.d.). The Life of Birds: Bird Songs. Retrieved December 7, 2008.
This source provides a global birdsong database map, with links to many online birdsong databases:
- Phillips, T. (2007, September 19). Links to Other Birdsong and Birding Sites. Retrieved October 23, 2008.
Materials and Equipment
- Personal computer with Internet access
- Lab notebook
- Research and determine what kinds of birds are commonly imitated in classical music. Choose three of these birds to investigate.
- Through research, determine which classical musical composers are noted for including bird songs or bird calls in their music. Select three of these composers who each have works imitating or giving an impression of your three chosen birds. A starting list of possible composers and their works is given below.
Starting List of Composers and Compositions Containing Bird Songs or Calls
|Bartók||Piano Concerto No. 3, second movement, adagio religioso|
|Beethoven||Symphony No. 6; 25th Piano Sonata (Op. 79)|
|Biber||Cock, Hen, and Quail|
|Handel||Cuckoo and the Nightingale|
|Haydn||Lark Quartet, op. 64, no. 5; Symphony No. 57 (finale); The Bird|
|Janequin||Le Chant Des Oiseaux|
|Messiaen||Réveil des Oiseaux; Oiseaux Exotiques; La Grive des Bois|
|Mozart||Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K. 453; Musical Joke, K. 522; "Pappageno/Pappagena Duet" and "Pappageno's 'Vogelfänger' (The Bird Catcher Aria) from The Magic Flute|
|Prokofiev||Peter and the Wolf|
|Rameau||Le Rappel des Oiseaux|
|Respighi||Gli uccelli (The Birds); The Pines of Rome|
|Stravinsky||Song of the Nightingale|
|Vivaldi||The Goldfinch; Spring (from The Four Seasons); Summer (from the Four Seasons)|
|Zeller||Der Vogelhändler (The Bird Seller)|
- Listen to an online database, such as www.xeno-canto.org, of your three chosen birds to hear real examples of their calls or songs. Pay attention to things like the rhythm and the pitch. Is there a crescendo (a rise in volume) during the vocalization? Are the notes staccato—very crisp, distinct, and not overlapping? Or do they trill?
- For each composer, choose a single segment of a composition that has an imitation or impression of your three chosen birds. You could obtain these compositions from a website such as Classical Music for the Birds. Write down the titles and segments that you have chosen to evaluate; for example, "The end of the second movement of Beethoven's 6th Symphony." Note down anything that strikes you about the character or quality of the music as you listen to it.
- For each composer, listen to your chosen segments, and identify, by listening or through research, the instrument used to make the imitation or impression of each bird, and record the instrument's name in your lab notebook in a data table, like the one below.
Data Table: Instrument Used to Imitate or Give an Impression of a Bird Song or Bird Call
|Bird Type||Composer 1: Beethoven (example)||Composer 2:||Composer 3:|
|Nightingale (example)||Flute (example)|
- For each bird type, compare the bird's real song or call to its musical ones in the chosen segments of compositions. Do you think each composer gave an imitation or an impression? Record your observation in your lab notebook in another data table.
- Analyze your data tables. Did composers use multiple instruments to imitate or give an impression of the birds that you chose, or just one? Do you think the complexity of the bird's sounds influenced the composer's choice of instrument? Were there any surprising choices of instruments? Were bird calls more likely to be imitated and bird songs more likely to be given impressions? Comparing composers, which ones were more likely to give impressions and which ones were more likely to give imitations?
Ask an Expert
- Choose a single bird and use free, open-source software, such as Audacity to evaluate the frequency spectrum of one of the bird's calls. Contrast and compare that spectrum with ones created from three pieces of classical music that try to imitate that bird's call.
- Choose a single composer and evaluate multiple compositions by that composer that contain bird impressions or imitations. Does the composer use the same instrument for the same bird across compositions? Does he or she always give impressions, or always give imitations of bird vocalizations, or is there a mix of both?
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers: